Monday, July 13, 2015

July in Kansas

All I need to do is look at the weather forecast to know that it is July in Kansas.

We all may be grumbling about today's "excessive heat" warning, and the fact that the highs for the rest of the week are in the low to mid-90s, but that is what you expect in the middle of July in Kansas. At least we've recently had rain. This is the first week this summer that every day has a forecast high in the 90s. We should count ourselves lucky.

Grayhead coneflower.
In the meantime, broccoli and lettuce seeds I planted in little pots on Friday are already sprouting on the porch. In a couple of weeks I will move them to a semi-shaded spot that gets a bit more intense sunlight, so they can get strong and stocky before I plant them in the garden the middle of next month. It seems a little nuts to be planting cool-loving crops when we are hitting the highest heat of the season, but it's now or never if you want fall broccoli and cabbage and kale, that will just get sweeter with a bit of frost.

Yes, I'm thinking of frost as the high temperature climbs steadily toward 100 and the highest chance of rain for the next week is just 30 percent. My rain tanks are full and the hoses are at ready. Today I planted more bush beans so we can have more tender green beans in a couple of months. Beans don't take as kindly to frost as the brassicas, but we should get a good crop of them before we need to worry about frost. When I plant my baby broccoli in the garden I'll also start planting seeds of radishes, lettuce, spinach, bok choy and probably some other things I've forgotten. Carrots and beets get planted now, as well. If you plan to protect them with plastic once frosty weather sets in, you may plant some of these things just a bit later. One year my radishes, carrots and beets under cover continued to grow well into November, maybe even December. Once the carrots and beets are grown, they can be protected by a thick layer of mulch and harvested until the ground freezes.

When planting cool-season crops in the heat of summer, water water water and a little shade are the things to remember. I recently bought more soaker hoses and really need to order some drip irrigation supplies. I should already have my drip irrigation system in, but 10 inches of rain during the last two weeks of May, and continued rain in the first couple of weeks of June made it seem like a task that could wait, especially when weeds are taking over everything. Even though we've recently had rain (more than 3 inches just last week) the high heat tells me I really need to put some serious thought into the drip irrigation system. I'll be spending the next few afternoons indoors, so that's top of my list (after all these phone calls I've got to make today).

Baby watermelons! Summer squash! Tomatoes!

Writing about freezing weather, frost and late-season vegetables hasn't dried up the sweat at all. It's still HOT outside, but thinking about the timing of it all makes autumn seem much closer than I'm ready for it to be. So I'll think about all the lovely things about July. Like peaches! They're little but abundant this year. I'm picking them hard but with a red red blush and hoping they ripen and don't rot on the counter. Sun Gold tomatoes -- sunny flavor and juicy -- and cucumbers finally started. The daily salads change their character.

Next month our summer apples will fill the baskets, Then more apples over the next couple of months. Gladiolus, zinnias, phlox and many wildflowers bloom right now, with extra color added by the butterflies. The next six weeks will seem long as the days are hot, sunny and dry. So September will be welcome.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Summer in Flight

I don't even want to know how long it has been since my last post here. Summer has been flying past at a rate faster than the speed of sound and I've hardly had time to catch my breath.

Music festivals, spirit festivals, gatherings with friends and families... strawberry season whizzing past at warp speed while rain falls and falls and falls and falls,.. bags and bags of strawberries in the freezer alongside several bags of snap peas and snow peas.

Sometime in May we noticed a couple of cardinals building a nest in the potted bay tree on our front porch. It seemed like a wise decision, out of the rain and worst wind, morning sun and shade by late morning. I'd gently pull back the shade to get a glimpse of mama cardinal sitting on the three speckled eggs, her head at alert and her eyes wide -- one always on me. Did she really know I was there?

After two or three weeks of watching, tiny, fuzzy heads were visible in the nest. Two of the eggs had hatched shortly after the first of June. Blind eyes and gaping mouths, we were thrilled. About a week after the hatching we headed out for three days of music festival. The day after we arrived home, I took a peek only to find the nest empty of all but the one unhatched egg. What had happened? We can only guess. The bay tree had no broken branches and the nest seemed undisturbed. A snake, perhaps. Black rat snakes like baby birds.

Blueberry season has come upon us and is nearly through, as the rabbits continue to multiply. They've hidden their nests well this year, as I have not come across any fur-lined hollows filled with tiny fuzzy babies. They've learned that I relocate babies from the garden, I guess.

It is not unusual to see a half dozen rabbits when we head out in the morning or early evening. And they are bold little buggers. Two hopped up to the front porch this afternoon and I opened the front door to scare them off, "rawr." They paused and looked at me. I stepped out the door and raised my hands, "RAWR!" (Clap, clap.) They hop around the corner without looking too terribly distressed.

Anyone know the number of a good rabbit exterminator, like a bobcat family or coyote couple. I don't hate rabbits, but this is ridiculous and I'm tired of them eating the wrong things. If they'd just stick to the weeds, we'd be cool.

Yes, the weeds. The Weeds! Three weeks of rain and frequent weekends away tend to give the weeds free reign. I am slowly working my way through the weeds. I may have the weeding done by Christmas. Ack.

Friday, April 3, 2015


Yellow, yellow, yellow.
Spring emerges from Her winter sleep, dancing amidst a swirling skirt of sunlight and yellow.

The forsythia bushes illuminate the landscape, covered in bright yellow blossoms. Clusters of daffodils dance and nod, spotlights of brilliance among the new green. Even the lilac bushes are budding -- for the first time since I planted them several years ago.

Lilac buds.
For the past few days I've revelled in the glorious spring warmth, breathed deeply of spring-scented air. I've spent the days spring cleaning in the garden areas, pulling weeds, trimming back dead stalks from last year's growth, pruning out winter-killed wood from lavenders and sages.

The back area of the garden, which is still "under construction," has been raked and mulched and weeded. Three little aronia shrubs now grow at the garden's edge. One day they will grow large enough to screen the current backdrop of piles of black compost. A few things have been transplanted. Some elderberries have been cut down to make way for a small apple tree. Nettles hacked out of the garden paths make their way into my lunch.

Every day the garden holds something new. All growing things live at a rapid pace. Tips of asparagus show in the soil and soon will make their way to our dinner table, an early gift from the garden. While weeding different areas I discover plants I'd forgotten. What's kind of mint is this growing by the cherry tree? I pull a few small leaves, crushing them to release their fragrance. What is it? I taste. Oh yes, oregano. Now I remember planting it here.

Little pea seedling have emerged and I urge them on to grow quickly before something comes along to eat them. They grow at their own pace, though, and I watch them anxiously. I check the rows for sprouting seeds -- lettuce, spinach, arugula, radish. I feel even more eager this spring because I plan to take some of my produce to a small farmers market nearby. Grow, grow little ones. I want to feed the world.

And we've had rain, falling in gentle spring thunderstorms, brightening the colors to such intensity it makes my heart ache. My routine changes, emerges. The evening might be spent with one final wander through the garden, looking for the things I might have missed while my focus was intent on work. More daffodils blooming in the cutting garden. They join other bouquets of daffodils plucked the day before.

I feel the hard shell of winter crumbling, splitting, falling away. I emerge, dancing in a swirl of sunlight.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

More Springing

Radish babies.
Lots of excitement in the garden these days.

Two days after the Spring Equinox I wandered through the garden, pulling back dead, brown growth from last year. Tiny green leaves hugged the ground beneath most of it. Fragrant herbs -- the anise hyssop, slender mountain mint, etc. -- prepare themselves to become tea for me. Green lines of radishes, peas, arugula, even spinach stretch along the garden.

The first bouquet of the season, daffodils from the cutting garden, graces our living room, Buds swell on the trees. The tops of elms are yellow with blooms, providing early sustenance to honey bees.

Honey bees also buzz at apricot blossoms. Yes, the eager beaver apricot tree has begun blooming just in time for the first frost we've had in weeks. It is perhaps our fault for planting it on a south facing slope on the south side of the house, allowing it to warm earlier than trees planted elsewhere. Apricots tend to be early bloomers, anyway, which is why the omniscient They say we harvest apricots only every five to seven years in Kansas.
Apricot blossoms.

This "dwarf" apricot tree is the most robust tree of all the 35-plus fruit trees planted on our property. And we've gotten precious little fruit from it, perhaps a handful of apricots in five years. But it is a pretty and healthy tree, and the early blossoms give the honey bees something to buzz about.

The temperature barely dipped its toes into the freezing realm, not falling low enough to kill apricot blossoms, quite. It would take 27 degree Fahrenheit to do that and my thermometer read 29 before it began to rise. So, apricots this year? Maybe? We've still got some freezing opportunities this spring.

The perennial earliness of this apricot tree has us contemplating putting another one in a different location, down at the bottom of the hill, where temps naturally remain a bit cooler prompting later blooming times. We planted the majority of our fruit trees on a north-facing slope, which heats up later in spring, as an effort to delay blossoming and protecting them from late frosts. The peach tree there was loaded with fruit last year in spite of lots of late-season cold. If only I had known that gooey stuff was normal and not a cause to get rid of all the fruit... alas...

Lavender mint springing.
If you have fruit trees, here's a handy chart outlining the temps at which buds, blossoms and green fruit of various fruit trees are killed.

A couple of days ago, the National Weather Service said to expect a low of 24 degrees on Saturday, which made my heart sink. That kind of temperature had me concerned not just about apricot blossoms, but the radish seedlings, baby broccoli plants and other things in the garden. These are cold tolerant plants, but 24 is a bit too much for them. I was glad the old sheets and blankets I used to protect the winter veggies were still piled in a wheelbarrow in the garage. Fortunately, I probably won't need to use them, yet, as the current forecast has the low at just above freezing.

We've still got ample time for some real cold before the weather becomes summer, but so far it looks like a warm spring. However, Kansas springs like to bring surprises, so we can't relax quite yet.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When the Earth Says "Peas"

For me, the planting season begins with peas.
Oh, sure, I've got broccoli, kale and onion seedlings in little pots started back in January, but peas are the first seeds I stick in the actual garden soil. Long rows of peas, because I could almost live on them when they are in production.

I'm talking about snap peas, of course. These succulent, sweet little edible-pod peas are what I crave most when growing season starts. If I plant enough, bags of these peas will go into the freezer to toss into stir-fry or any other dish that begs for the green pods. But the best way to eat them is fresh and the best time is while standing in the garden picking peas.

Because peas begin to lose sweetness the moment you pluck them from the vine. All those sugars begin to morph into starches, which are sustenance, but not nearly as tasty. This happens quite rapidly, and by the time you've filled your basket and gone indoors, much of the sugars are gone. So eat while you pick, I say. There is no better way to satisfy the craving.

Of course, it's impossible to eat them all while I'm in the garden (though I've tried). The rest go into a bag and in the fridge to nosh with any meal and inbetween.
Unless you will eat them in two or three days, better freeze them while they are as sweet as they can be. Steam blanch or boiling water blanch (cook briefly, that is), cool and spread on a cookie sheet to freeze. Once they are hard, bag 'em. They won't stick together so much that way.

Peas really are pretty easy to grow, once they've gotten beyond the point where cutworms and hungry bunnies nibble at them. After that, I don't notice much pest damage. They like a little water when it gets dry, but since they grow during the wetter part of our summer, I don't usually need to water them. They grow best in the cooler part of the season, which is why I plant them in early to mid-March; however, we can plant them to mid-April here.

 If the weather is favorable, I pick my first sweet pods in late May. The harvest lasts well into June, sometimes lasting into the first part of July. But by then, powdery mildew has coated every leaf and stem and starts to pock the pods. I take powdery mildew as just part of life. When the weather turns too hot for the peas, the fungus kicks in. Preventive measures can be taken by spraying with baking soda (1 tablespoon per gallon of water and few drops of mild soap) or milk (one part milk to 10 parts water). That must be done about once a week -- before the mildew shows up.

Some varieties are less susceptible to others, but none of the snap peas I've grown escape forever. Snow peas, aka Sugar Pod Peas, the flat Oriental peas that you know from restaurant stir fry, are a bit more tolerant of heat, but not much. I plant those, too, but not as many. They also seem more productive, but maybe I just don't eat quite as many while I am picking.

Snow peas apparently are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. Evidence of snow pea cultivation has been found in sites 12,000 years old. The snap pea, however, is relatively new, being developed in the 1960s when two guys, Dr. Calvin Lamborn and Dr. M.C. Parker of Twin Falls, Idaho, crossbred a snow pea variety with a garden pea. I am so glad they did. My life would be quite dull without the snap pea.

A number of snap pea varieties exist, some with more mildew resistance, some with long vines, some with shorter vines. The variety I planted this year is Cascadian. A few years ago, I found myself eager to plant a pink-podded variety. It wasn't as sweet as the regular snap peas. At least one catalog this year listed a yellow-podded variety. I'll stick with green, though, thanks. As far as snow peas go, I've stuck with Oregon Sugar Pod II. I don't see too many other varieties offered.

These edible pod peas contain less protein than other peas, but are still highly nutritious, containing iron and vitamin C, as well as fiber. We all need our fiber.

I love snap peas so much, and I'm betting other people do, too. So I've planted another row, with plans to sell them at a tiny farmers market nearby. If no one buys them, well, I will have plenty of freezer space by then.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Blooms and Things

The crocus wither, but these lovely and diminutive Iris reticulata popped their heads out in the last few days.

On Friday, the UPS truck drove up our hill bearing apple trees and berry plants, so Friday and Saturday were spent digging holes, soaking peat moss (for the blueberries), and planting, planting, planting. Hi ho, hi ho!

On Thursday I stopped at the nursery (it's on my way home from town) and bought pansies for the pots on the front porch. With the arrival of fruit plants on Friday, I didn't get them planted until today.

We have had unusually warm March weather for more than a week. The other day as I worked in the sunny garden it felt hot. Today was warmer. I saw the thermometer hit 84 degrees Fahrenheit. That would be warm even for April, although in the middle of July we would think it quite refreshing.

I've been looking at the weather forecasts, hoping for signs of cooling down and rain. Most of the next seven days will have highs only in the 50s. That will feel very cold after this tropical wave. We may light the fire again. But no sign of freezing temps (which I would like to see), although lows will be in the 30s most nights.

The most encouraging sign on the forecast is chance of rain on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. Small chances, but it's good to see potential dampness headed our way. We had a dry fall and winter, which puts us in a stage one drought, so I hear. Burning bans have been put in place, as each of the past several days saw the National Weather Service issue fire hazard warnings. Today's even higher heat and breezy conditions make fires even more of a danger.

I wish the Northeast could have trucked some of their snow down here.

Lettuce seedlings and little thyme plants.
When the weather cools this week, I will put the broccoli, kale and cabbage seedlings in the garden, planting seed of more kale, collards, radishes and whatnot. And I will put these baby lettuces in their own beds, planting seed alongside them for later. I hope to have lettuce to sell at a tiny farmers market nearby. The market coordinator called it a "starter market" and "incubator" market, for us small-time growers. I hope to have a few other things to sell there, too.

It's time, it's time to start planting. In a few more weeks, the frenzy will begin. Then we'll see what the weather does -- stay too warm? Cool down too much? Get soggy? You never know with Kansas, anyway, and lately it's been even less reliable.

I'm not going to fret, though, just cross my fingers and hope for rain, and start ordering my drip irrigation pieces and parts.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Marching In

We turn the calendar to March, and suddenly everything feels different.
The air feels softer.
The birdsong seems louder.
The garden looks more alive, even though nothing has changed since a month ago.

Crocus bloom. In the little strip between the house and the sidewalk where sedum covers the ground in orange and yellow, two little clumps of crocus sport sun-colored blooms.

Green daffodil blades erupt through the wood chip mulch.
Baby broccoli, cabbage and kale plants sit under lights in the front room. It's time to begin "hardening off" these babies, preparing them for their home in the garden.
Last night I moves panels of fencing to the garden so I can erect pea trellises today. Maybe I will plant peas today, maybe in  few days. The forecast puts us in the mid-to upper 60s (Fahrenheit) in the first half of next week.

Early forecasts had us covered in snow this past weekend, with white stuff falling all day Saturday and Sunday (March 1), and snow/rain/sleet on Monday. Snow did fall on Saturday, the last day of February, blanketing the world in a couple of inches.

But March dawned with intermittent sun that melted much of Saturday's snow. Something about saying, "it's March" made even Sunday's cold temperature seem refreshed and refreshing. Spring is almost here.
Puddles in the stones were ice last night, but that won't last under today's sun.

While wandering through the garden yesterday evening, my mind moved over the more imminent tasks -- finish cutting down last  year's growth on the sweet grass; prune, transplant and mulch the elderberries; put up pea trellises and hoops for the cabbage beds....  Excitement moved through me. I can't wait to get out and tidy and clean and check on things. Tomorrow, the plastic comes off the low tunnels under which kale has overwintered.

A couple of days ago, as dusk overtook the world, I saw three -- or maybe four -- rabbits bouncing off of each other, hopping and... playing?? It's mating season. The time of the Mad March Hare (although these are cottontail rabbits, not hares). The moon is waxing, almost full. I feel the sap rising. The energy expanding outward. Spring springing.

Hurray for March. It changes everything.